By Rebecca Dickson
Calgary is becoming a mecca of sorts for food lovers and consumers. In the past few decades our restaurant scene has flourished as the city’s growing diversity of palates infuses our local ingredients with international flavours and many of our top chefs create entire dining experiences centered on sustainable, locally-sourced menus.
However, while we focus on extolling the virtues of “farm to table” dining experiences, we miss the conversation about how our local food system and our consumer behaviours contribute to a less virtuous “farm to landfill” cycle. And this discussion on food waste is an important ingredient in the food security and sustainability recipe on local and national levels.
With the world’s population growth slated to reach 9 billion people by 2050, we will soon be facing an unprecedented global demand for food resulting in increased environment pressures, including increased competition for land, water, and energy. Factor in agriculture’s contributions to climate change (an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to agriculture) and how climate change, in turn, affects agricultural yields, and it becomes clear that mitigating food waste is a central factor to ensure we can feed the future’s hungry mouths.
A 2013 United Nations report found that, while the world wastes 1.3 billion tons of food annually, more than 870 million people go hungry every day. According to the 2014 Cut Waste, Grow Profit report published by VCMI, Canadians waste an estimated $31 billion in food products every year, 47% of which is generated at the individual household level. Accounting for the cost of the natural resources, energy and other factors associated with the production, manufacturing, and transportation of that wasted food, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates Canada’s overall annual cost of food waste is in excess of $100 billion.
In Calgary, 23,165 households live in poverty, subsisting on an income of less than $20,000, and more than 3,500 people experienced homelessness in 2014. Assuming Calgarians are on par with the average Canadian household, the ‘avoidable’ and ‘possibly avoidable’ components of our local food waste become a viable opportunity to provide desperately needed sustenance and nutrition for the thousands of families and individuals experiencing daily food insecurity.
The positive news is that there are several organizations in Calgary already providing local solutions to reducing food waste:
- LeftOvers Calgary was founded by Lourdes Juan that ‘rescues’ uneaten food from restaurants and grocers to deliver it to services agencies such as the Calgary Homeless Shelter. Check out their donation tracking page to see which of your favourite food vendors are taking part.
- Hop Compost, founded by Kevin Davies, collects the food scraps from 40 Calgary food merchants and produces a clean fertilizer alternative sold back to local growers.
- Alternate Root is a community organization founded by Carla Bitz and hosts food skills workshops to teach home cooks the strategies they need to prevent food waste.
- RedHat, an Alberta co-operative of producers, launched a pilot project in 2014 at several Calgary Co-op stores to encourage consumers to buy aesthetically-displeasing fruits and vegetables under The Misfits label and at discounted prices.
What’s more, by implementing some of the habits listed below, you can begin to combat food waste at a micro level and encourage change from the bottom up:
1. Buy less, more often.
This is a common adage peppering lifestyle blogs and discussions around healthy eating and portion size, and it makes sense from the perspective of reducing food waste, too. If your routine allows for frequent visits to the grocery store throughout the week, this is the best way to learn how to buy what you need for the next couple of days.
Instead of loading up on a full bag of apples, purchase one or two for the next few days. Not only will it reduce the amount of food you throw out at the end of the week, it will allow you to introduce more variety and choice into your diet (those apples don’t have a chance of holding your attention until the end of the week).
2. If you can’t grocery shop frequently, plan ahead.
If heading to the store on a more frequent basis isn’t practical for you (maybe your daily schedule is too hectic or unpredictable or your nearest grocery store isn’t conveniently close to make the trip on a regular basis), establish a realistic weekly meal plan and take into account the nights you’ll be eating out.
This will not only reduce food waste, it can also save you money! When you buy groceries based only on the ingredients you will use in the next few days you’ll save the money you would have spent on food you end up tossing because you didn’t have a use for it in the first place.
3. Make smaller meals or freeze your leftovers.
Whether you’re cooking for a family or for yourself, re-examine your portion sizes and keep track of how many or how much of the ingredients you used to create the size of meal. If you boiled enough pasta to keep your neighbourhood Running Room club carb-loaded for a month, write down a third or a quarter of that amount to reference for next time. And while leftovers are great for lunches or quick dinners, make sure to account for them in your meal plan, too.
4. Keep your fridge organized and check your temperature settings.
Know what’s in your fridge and avoid the common pitfall of thinking a fridge with less food means you have nothing to make for dinner. This handy guide from David Suzuki’s Queen of Green offers several food storage solutions to maintain optimal fruit and vegetable freshness. Ideally, your fridge should be set to 4° C or lower to “keep your food out of the temperature danger zone”.
5. Labels are a guide, not a rule.
“Best before” doesn’t always equal “throw away”. I’m not advocating for everyone to open their fridge and eat the luncheon meat that’s several weeks old or happily consume food with visible signs of mold. I am suggesting we re-educate ourselves on the reasons and meanings behind best before labels and relearn how to use our five senses in the kitchen.
Wrinkled tomatoes and peppers that have lost their firmness may be past their prime for salads, but they make great additions to stews and soups. If your milk is a day past the date on the container, use a quick smell or taste test – you’d be surprised to find it didn’t sour at the stroke of midnight, so you can drink the last cup instead of pouring it down the drain.
6. Get creative with what you already have.
Stir frys, casseroles, frittatas, soups, and smoothies are all great DIY meals that don’t require a recipe and allow you to explore new flavour combinations while using up the last bits of vegetables and other items that can easily get left until it’s too late. If you do need a recipe, you can find plenty of delicious ideas online.
Consider posting on your fridge a few quick and easy recipes that encourage you to use up bountiful ingredients that you need to use up before they start to go bad (one of my favourite recipes for the extra celery that takes up room in my crisper is Kevin Kent’s The Best Way to Eat Celery featured in the Soup Sisters cookbook). If you need some ideas or don’t know where to start, sign up for an Alternative Root workshop.
Incorporating food waste reduction strategies into your relationship with food has clear financial, social, and environmental benefits. Combating food waste in small ways by applying intentional and consistent changes to our individual behaviours – at the supermarket, in our kitchens (specifically inside our fridges and pantries), and at the dinner table – is going to make the difference that will resonate in households across the globe and allow us to feed the future 9 billion.
 Godfray, H. C. J., J. R. Beddington, I. R. Crute, L. Haddad, D. Lawrence, J. F. Muir, J. Pretty, S. Robinson, S. M. Thomas, and C. Toulmin. 2010. ‘Food Security: The Challenge Of Feeding 9 Billion People’. Science 327 (5967): 812-818. doi:10.1126/science.1185383.
 Gilbert, Natasha. 2012. ‘One-Third Of Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come From Agriculture’. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2012.11708.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,. 2013. Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts On Natural Resources. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3347e/i3347e.pdf.
 United Nations,. 2013. UN Report: One-Third Of World’S Food Wasted Annually, At Great Economic, Environmental Cost. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45816#.Vc3-mFNVikr.
 Gooch, Dr. Martin V., and Dr. Abdel Felfel. 2014. “$27 Billion” Revisited: The Cost Of Canada’s Annual Food Waste. Value Chain Management International Inc. http://vcm-international.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Food-Waste-in-Canada-27-Billion-Revisited-Dec-10-2014.pdf.
 Calgaryhomeless.com,. 2015. ‘Calgary Homeless Foundation » Learn More’. http://calgaryhomeless.com/get-involved/learn-more/.
 Healthycanadians.gc.ca,. 2012. ‘Safe Food Handling In The Home’. http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/eating-nutrition/healthy-eating-saine-alimentation/safety-salubrite/tips-conseils/safety_home-maison_salubrite-eng.php.